In September 2016 a major new museum opened in Basrah, in no less a venue than Saddam Hussein’s old Lakeside Palace complex. This moment was the culmination of ten years of hard work. Qahtan al-Abeed, Director of the new Basrah Museum, tells its story from his initial dream, through the difficult journey of finding a building and developing the plan, through to its successful opening, and his ambitions for its future.
By Qahtan al-Abeed
The idea started when I came to Basrah in 2005, the year I got my first job as an employee at the Basrah Antiquities Department. I had spent the previous years in northern Iraq, but I’m originally from Basrah.
When I started, the department was working out of a digging house 15 km south of Basrah, in Al-Zubair, and there was no proper building. I asked them, what about the museum? But they replied that there was no museum: the old one had been looted in 1991, during the first Gulf war, and the building that had been used since as the antiquities office had been lost in the war of 2003. So on my first day, I was really sad: This was Basrah, with its great history, but without any museum at all for 15 years! I began to dream that I could take the opportunity to fix everything.
The previous museum was in the old part of the city, called ‘Old Basrah’, by the al-Ashar river. It was a very nice wooden house in the style called ‘Shanashel’. During the 1970’s the building was used as the Greek Consulate, but after the last war in 2003, somebody from one of the parties was living there and refused to give it back to the Department. Mudhar–who was the Director of the Museum–and I began to negotiate with this man, but without success. In 2006 the building was sealed as an office for one of the parties.
We went back again and talked with them; this time the police were with us, and we got the building back at the end of 2006. But after 6 months, somebody shot at us while I was driving along; Mudhar was killed. It was a difficult time, in the beginning. The building was not strong enough to host the museum, and the area not secure enough at that time.
Then I heard that the British army would leave Saddam’s palace complex, and I said, ‘Ok, it would be a good idea to ask the local government to get one of the palaces as a museum!’ I felt that the idea would touch people’s heart, because they were still feeling bad about Saddam’s regime. Places can remind people of their sad feelings, so how can we change those feelings? We have tried to send the message that the places of the dictatorial regime will become places of culture and civilization. That civilization always triumphs over dictatorship.
So we sent an official letter to the head of the Basrah Provincial Council (BPC), and there was a meeting between the BPC and somebody from the British army. Then they contacted me, and we had several meetings in their camp at the airport. They offered support for our plan, and they made contact with Dr. John Curtis, who was the Keeper of the Middle East Department at the British Museum at that time. We began leading the project together, and from 2008 until 2010 we worked on getting permission from the government to use the building, and in 2010 we finally got it.
Sir Terence Clark (former British ambassador to Iraq) together with John Curtis and other friends founded a charity called Friends of Basrah Museum (FOBM). The FOBM signed a memorandum of understanding, pledging to raise the funds needed to rehabilitate the Building. Most of the funds came from British Petroleum.
We made a work program together and started the first phase in 2011. First we needed to secure the building, blocking all the windows on the first floor where the galleries are. I did a 3D CAD model of the building, so we could understand what we were going to do. Then we restored the drain and water network, cleaned the yard around the building of military rubble, built the security gates for the main entrance and the four exhibitions, as well as the woodwork on the building’s facade, restored the dome, the paintwork, air conditioners and the furniture.
After all this work was completed, we suggested a partial opening of the museum, starting with the Basrah gallery. I did the designs for the showcases and made the plans for the exhibit. In 2016, we began to select the objects. We sent official requests to the Baghdad Museum. We went there and began the selection.
We focused on artifacts coming from archaeological sites in Basrah, and we got around 300 objects of different types, shapes and uses, from the Hellenistic period through the Parthian, Sassanid and Islamic periods. Then, we selected 255 artifacts from sites outside of Basrah, but which had some relationship to the city.
The Basrah gallery opened on the 27th of September 2016, supported by the FOBM, BISI and the British Museum.The opening day was very successful, and everybody was happy. Today the museum is one of the main places for visitors in Basrah. Within the first two months we have had 650 visitors, which is the largest number of visitors for a museum in Iraq. We recently received the very happy news that the British Council has accepted a proposal submitted by FOBM, and that they will fund the museum 460,000 GBP to open the other three galleries. The museum now works as a cultural center in Basrah, and we are planning to host the most important cultural activities in the city very soon.
All pictures courtesy of Qahtan al-Abeed.